18.03.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Latent Objectives of Saudi Crown Prince’s Maiden Foreign Tour

Whereas the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), ‘the modernizer’, has ostensibly set on his maiden foreign tour to attract investment and transfer of technology from foreign investors to make his vision 2030 a national and commercial success, it is just more than a coincidence that the route of his tour coincides with the countries that have been directly and indirectly aiding the House of Saud in its tussle and indirect war with Iran, and some of which are also a party to the Iran-nuke deal. Talk about Egypt, a country that was one of the countries to commit its military to the Saudi led coalition that invaded Yemen, or the United Kingdom that has been selling weapons worth billions to the House of Saud, which the later has been using against the Houthis, an indigenous ethnic group in Yemen that the Kingdom claims is receiving support from Iran. Let’s not also forget the United States, which has been the Kingdom’s main ally and is even willing to scrap the Iran-nuke deal. Therefore, in his visits, MBS’ one of the main point of concerns to discuss with his allies is to find ways to lure them deeper into the regional conflict against Iran, whose supreme leader, MBS thinks, is a new Hitler, convince them of scrapping the Iran deal and thus build up international momentum for rolling back Iran’s influence that comes at the expense of Saudi influence, which is witnessing not just the rise of Iran but also Turkey, which the MBS recently included in his regional ‘axis of evil’ and unwittingly locked Iran and Turkey, at least in his calculations, into an alliance, adding to his difficulties.

This is evident from the way how quickly Saudia’s influence has vanished due to its inability to force Qatar, a tiny Arab state, or Lebanon into submission and give up their so-called ‘pro-Iran’ policies. Interestingly enough, Saudia’s pressure on the two countries has only contributed to what it was supposed to halt: Iran’s growing influence. Today, both of these countries, one facing a blockade and the other threat of another war, are convincingly looking to Iran for diplomatic support; hence, the urgent need for MBS to change the scenario by wooing the West.

The UK has already expressed its willingness to increase its presence in the Persian Gulf region, evident from Theresa May’s visit in late 2017. While Mays’s visit was then thought to be the occasion when she would raise the “humanitarian” crisis engulfing Yemen, nothing significant of this sort happened—or, should have been expected to happen. MBS’ on-going visit has proved—yet again—that the UK remains a key ally of the Kingdom—and is going to keep profiting from Saudi’s war on Yemen; hence, the new arms deals.

Keeping the so-called ‘bad conduct’ of Yemen war therefore aside, the UK is going to sell about 48 Typhoon fighter jets to the Kingdom, worth billions of pounds, calling the deal a “positive step” towards modernizing the Saudi armed forces (so that it could continue to bomb the Yemenis into submission). The new deal is in addition to the arms and weapon systems, worth 4.6 billion pounds, the UK has sold to Saudia since the beginning of the war in Yemen in 2015.

The deal also comes at a time when MBS has heavily embellished his maiden tour with diplomatic warnings of ‘going nuclear’ if they are not provided enough support against Iran and if Iran decides to go nuclear. While MBS has no explanation—other than Saudia’s own distrust of Iran and the nuke-deal reached after years of negotiations—as to why Iran would develop nuclear weapons, his statements do show how his tour is focused on Iran and how he wants to ‘warn the world’ of the consequences of future nuclearization of the Persian Gulf.

While widely propagated as Saudia’s strategy of self-preservation and counter hegeomony, within this so-called strategy is also hidden the fact that Saudia Arabia is facing a highly precarious, rather than historic, situation after the Syria debacle and how the war it had imposed has turned absolutely upside down, leaving the kingdom’s future depending, more than ever, on how it conducts the Yemen war and if it can succeed in forcing the Houthis into submission.

Therefore, by threatening the world with possible nuclearization, MBS seems to be putting his cards on the table to force the world to ‘wake up’ to the real or imagined or even propagated dangers that Iran is posing and that must be countered; hence, his emphasis on coalition building and on modernization of Saudia’s military structure, armament and command and staff training with crucial help of allies in the West.

MBS’ fresh drive, a drive that largely depends upon his personal relations with Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, towards building coalition and changing the political discourse on the Iran-nuke deal notwithstanding, it remains unlikely that MBS will succeed in changing the direction of the wind. His efforts are more likely to face the same fate as his predecessors, for the Western countries, especially the EU, remain more interested in a rather manageable and controlled tension and crisis, which yields not only political influence but also huge profit, than an outright war against Iran that would ultimately come to engulf more than the two adversaries: Saudia and Iran.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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